Family Values
by The Reverend John Beddingfield

A sermon preached on Christmas Day at the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, New York City. The Reverend John Beddingfield serves as curate for parish life and outreach at Saint Mary’s and is the partner of Erwin de Leon, who has previously written for The Epistle.

The doors are open. Come on in. Sit down for a few minutes. We’re going to eat in just a little while.

Those words are being said in many different places this week. In homes, and apartments and restaurants. In ancestral places, in neutral territories. But we say them here, today, with special intention and particular meaning. The doors are open, and that they are church doors is especially important.

Some church doors are not open today. You may have seen this in the news. Some of the largest congregations in our country, most of whom are nondenominational churches, are closed. Explaining their policy, leaders of these churches point out that they have offered special programs, in some places, intense and meaningful programs—but Christmas Day, they say, should be used as a “family day.”

Well, I’m a great fan of family days. I’m a huge supporter of Christian family values. But I think it’s important for us to remember what constitutes family, what creates family, what sanctifies family. And for that, I go back to the manger.

At the end of this Mass, we will process to the crèche or Nativity Scene, in Saint Joseph’s chapel. We call it a crèche from an old word that originally meant crib.

And there is a crib, or sorts. And surrounding is a family, of sorts. Look at them closely. A very young mother who became pregnant under most unusual circumstances. An older father, whose motives and common sense were questioned when he decided to marry the young woman. There’s a young musician playing a pipe, serenading the strange but Holy Family. There’s a shepherd with his shepherd’s staff, and there’s another shepherd sort of tipping his hat to the newborn child. As odd as our crèche may be, representing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the original must have been even stranger. After all, this child is no ordinary family; no ordinary child. He is “born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

And that little, holy family, begins to grow. But it grows in ways no one could have imagined. Wise men from the East—kings, Persians, astronomers. They begin to make their way to the manger, and when they get there, they will find the door open and the welcome warm.

Jesus himself seems to add on to his family as he grows. When he’s twelve, his parents take him to Jerusalem for the Passover. He gets lost, and when they find him, he is in the temple. I imagine him looking at his parents as though this is the most normal thing in the world, as he says, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”

When Jesus is preaching and teaching and healing, he’s told that his family wants to see him, and one gets the sense that his family might think he’s gone just a little too far. Jesus asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

These are Christian family values. For some who may have grown up in problematic families, these words of Jesus may come as very good news. But for others of us, these are hard words. They challenge and re-define what is sometimes most familiar and most deeply loved. It is not easy for parents to watch their children grow up making new connections that compete with filial devotion. Siblings do not always appreciate the new addition of in-laws and extras.

I had my own taste of this a while back. Some of you know that in September, my father fell off a ladder and was in extremely serious condition for about a month. He has recovered almost fully, but there were several quick, worried trips I made to visit. Among all the other feelings I felt when I visited, I began to notice in myself a kind of resentment when I would see some of my parents’ friends. “Who are these people who act like they know my father better than I? How is it that they share stories and experiences that I know nothing about?” When my mother referred to the next-door neighbor as “a third son,” I thought I would scream. But then I laughed, as I began to realize how God has expanded our family. I began to notice close up how God continues to grow a family, to expand it, to enrich it, to challenge it, to surprise it. And in our family, I suppose it was my turn to be surprised. My parents never quite imagined they would have a son-in-law from the Philippines, or for that matter a daughter-in-law who has her own very definite ideas of what a family should be like.

Jesus seems never to be satisfied that his family is big enough or strange enough. In the calling of the disciples, he adds tax collectors and fishermen. Added to this are rich folks, civic leaders, military officials and soldiers, former prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, bandits, and everything in-between. All at the same table – that table that was set and shared in an upper room, but extends through time and space to us—at that table continue to be all sorts and conditions of people. Even on the cross, Jesus continues to reshape what family is, as he looks at his disciple and his mother and says, “Woman, behold, your son!” And to his disciple, “Behold, your mother!”

At Saint Mary’s I get to meet most of the new additions to the family, early on. It’s one of the great gifts of my work here, that I often get to talk with people when they’re at the early stages of their love for this parish. They’ve just found us, and this is before they’ve noticed the cracks in the plaster, the cost of maintaining the building, or the fact that their clergy are broken human beings on the same road of repentance and redemption. But these early expressions of love are amazing. Just last night someone said, “I’ve looked for a church like this, my whole life.” Another schedules her vacations around feast days and Holy Week so that she is sure she will be here. But often, very often, I hear people say something like, “When I first came here, I felt like I had come home.” Well, they did.

Saint John tells us “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

In Jesus Christ we are born of God, in him we too live in the light, as he died on the cross and rose again for us, so we die to sin and rise again in light and life eternal. Just as Jesus is at the center of our Christmas crèche, may Christ born, crucified and resurrected be the center of our lives and may God use us to continue building his family.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


© 2006 John Beddingfield

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